Brad Pitt On Tarantino And How Once Upon A Time Came To Life: “It’s A Love Letter To LA, But Also To Our Childhood”
JAKE MILLAR2 JULY 2019
We meet the star of Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic masterpiece, an epic adventure into an iconic era of Hollywood that might just be the biggest, best, most ambitious film of the year.
The audience at the Cannes Film Festival, not known for hiding its judgement, delivered a standing ovation as the credits rolled on Quentin Tarantino’s hugely anticipated epic Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. With his latest film, Tarantino had won over the festival’s notoriously picky critics, just as he did 25 years ago, when Pulp Fiction scooped the coveted Palme D’Or.
Then came the reviews. Five stars from The Guardian, which called Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood “shocking, gripping, dazzlingly shot”.
High praise also from Time Magazine, the LA Times and even publications as far as China and Russia. “What was entirely unexpected was that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood would be such a moving film,” wrote The New York Times, “at once a love letter – and a dream – of the Hollywood that was.”
And it is. Since it was first rumoured to be in the works some two years ago, the lm has been spoken about in hushed tones.
Until very recently, the only real detail anyone had heard was that it would star Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and feature Margot Robbie in a supporting role. Beyond that, and the fact it would somehow address the ‘Manson Family’ killings, little was known.
Ahead of the Cannes premiere, Robbie even took to social media to post a type- written note from Tarantino, pleading against revealing spoilers.
“The cast and crew have worked so hard to create some- thing original,” it read. “I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the lm in the same way.”
But at risk of spoiling nothing, the gist is this. The film takes place over three days in 1969: February 8 and 9, and crucially, for reasons that we’ll get to in a bit, August 8. This is a different Hollywood, a changing Hollywood. The Golden Age – the Hollywood of Cary Grant and Errol Flynn and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – has peaked, and is starting to fade.
It’s in this Hollywood that Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself. A one- time big star, Dalton is now cast adrift in a shifting industry, as he struggles to make the transition from a famous TV actor into the lm game.
“Now I’m gonna talk straight to ya,” his agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), tells him, as he tries to convince Dalton to move to Italy and jump on the Spaghetti Western bandwagon, “I’m not in the has-been business.”
Dalton takes guest spots. He drinks too much. He fluffs his lines. But all the time accompanied by his longtime stuntman-cum-best buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as trusty and faithful as a Labrador.
“Well, ultimately,” says Pitt, when we speak a couple of weeks before the Cannes premiere, “what draws me, and what draws us all, is working with Quentin. He’s such an original voice in the lexicon of film and his sets are just full of enthusiasm and delight. That’s why we’re there.”
For someone who’s been one of the most famous people on Earth for the best part of two decades, there are still a couple of things that surprise you about Brad Pitt.
Firstly, that lazy Oklahoma drawl of his that you forget he’s been hiding on screen all these years, and, secondly, he’s a movie buff who says things like “in the lexicon of film”. He’s also extremely polite, but that’s probably not such a revelation.
“Both times I’ve worked with him, it’s been an immediate ‘yes’,” continues Pitt, who first teamed up with Tarantino 10 years ago, on Inglourious Basterds, “and I would think that’s true for all of us. You know you’re in great hands. And you know you’re gonna get to chew on some of the best dialogue you’ll ever get.
“I always describe his dialogue as like, if you’re in an altercation or you stick your foot in your mouth, you’re driving home and you think: Fuck, I wish I’d said that! His dialogue is always the thing you wish you’d said.”
Dalton and Booth’s relationship is a special one. Not only are they great friends, but the Hollywood of the ’50s and ’60s was a different time, when actors would team up with one stuntman for a whole series of pictures.
There was John Wayne and Chuck Roberson, Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, and Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins, who performed the motorcycle jump in The Great Escape.
“They would often design a lot of the stunts, and they would go on together from movie to movie to movie, from television project, to television project,” says Pitt. “Today, it’s more transitory. And, yes, I did rely on my stuntman in this movie, playing a stuntman. So I really had to hit the gym for this one.”
This dynamic is central to the film, but it’s one of a few that, at first glance, seem unrelated, but come to meet and separate.
The two fictional leads are joined by rising starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director of the moment Roman Polanski (Polish actor Rafal Zawierucha), who move next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Then there’s superstar and Dalton rival, Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), and the crazed, sinister figure of Charles Manson (Aussie Damon Herriman).
This is the stage that Tarantino has set for a Hollywood in the midst of a revolution. Counterculture is in full swing. Rock ’n’ roll. Sex. Drugs. Hippies. And the traditional system with its old-school studios and macho movie stars will soon be gone. And so, too, will Sharon Tate and four other guests staying at 10050 Cielo Drive on a fateful evening in August, 1969, brutally murdered by Manson devotees.
“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the ’60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969,” wrote the essayist Joan Didion in The White Album, “ended the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”
It’s a turning point. And in the years that follow, the New Hollywood era will sweep through cinema, led by hits like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider that celebrated antiheroes, those who bucked the trend of what a movie star looked like and what a movie looked like, altogether. This is also the Hollywood that Quentin Tarantino, then six years old, would come to inherit.
Tarantino was named after Burt Reynolds’ character in ’60s western series Gunsmoke, Quint Asper, and he was always meant to be a cinema legend. “I wanted a name that would fill up the whole screen,” his mother, Connie Zastoupil, told Vanity Fair in a 1994 profile of the director. “It’s a big name and I expected him to be important. Why would I want an unimportant baby?”
As a child, Tarantino’s parents would take him to film screenings, and for most of his life, or perhaps all of it, he has been obsessed with cinema. He litters his films with cinematic references, collecting and depositing them through his work, like a magpie. Today, there are whole areas of the internet dedicated to spotting, compiling and relishing these Tarantino-isms.
There are the suits and ties worn in Reservoir Dogs, a tribute to John Woo classic A Better Tomorrow II. There’s the strain of heroin, Bava, that Lance offers to Vincent in Pulp Fiction, a tribute to legendary Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. The tracksuit The Bride wears in the Kill Bill films, which closely resembles Bruce Lee’s in Game of Death. And then there’s the very title of his latest film, a direct reference to Sergio Leone’s epics Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America.
“I’ve been working on it, off and on, for at least six years,” says Tarantino of the film. “Not writing it fulltime, obviously, but in between projects. I would work on it a little bit more and a bit more, and push the rock up the hill each time. Then, finally, I go, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to finish it’.”
He might have been writing it for five or six years, but that’s hardly the full story. It is, after all, a film about films, set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. In other words, this is peak Tarantino.
“I’ve kind of spent my whole life researching it,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole life knowing this world. So now I can finally do something with everything that I’ve been filling my brain with for the last 56 years.”
With his rapid-fire speech, which darts around from film reference to film reference, talking to Tarantino about movies is a bit like saddling up on a rodeo bull. For the most part, if you really try hard enough, you can manage to hold on, but you know at some point, he’s going to shake you loose.
“I’m not expecting most of the audience to get every name or every reference that I make,” he says, of his tendency to hide cinematic gems in his work, “but I like movies that take you inside of a world, and then you get to understand that world a little bit more, by the time the movie’s over. They don’t do it by talking down to you, they talk slightly over your head. And over the course of time, you kind of get it.
“So you don’t need to know everything I’m saying,” he continues, “you just need to know I know what I’m saying. I want it to be obvious that I know what I’m talking about. You know you’re in good hands.”
The film is important for another reason. Tarantino has made no secret of theact that he’s got his eye on the finish line. This is his ninth film and, if everything works out, he will finish exactly one more feature after this. Ten films. That’s all he’s going to make. Which means this is his second-last chance to prove he’s the world’s greatest lmmaker.
“I think when it comes to theatrical movies, I’ve come to the end of the road,” he says. “I see myself writing lm books and starting to write theatre, so I’ll still be creative. I just think I’ve given all I have to give to movies.”
“No, I don’t think he’s bluffing at all,” says Pitt, when we put this to him. “I think he’s dead serious. And I kind of openly lament that to him, but he understands the math of when he feels like directors start falling off their game. But he has other plans and we’re not going to have to say goodbye for a long time.”
There are rumours Tarantino is working on a new Star Trek instalment. But all of this raises a question. If Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is peak Tarantino, a movie about movies, set in the years that came to define Tarantino as a filmmaker, if this is his big masterpiece, why not finish on this one?
“Well, um,” says Tarantino, thinking it over for a second, “if it’s really well received, maybe I won’t go to 10. Maybe I’ll stop right now! Maybe I’ll stop while I’m ahead. We’ll see.”
“Hold on,” says Pitt. We’re speaking over the phone, as he makes his way home in LA and some guy – a guy who’s about to have a story he can dine out on for years – is blocking traffic. “What are you doing?” asks Pitt, giving the horn a couple of short pumps. Then two more, longer this time. “Oh you know, I’m just taking care of business,” he says, when we ask what the reaction is to Brad Pitt honking someone on a sunny LA afternoon. “But he might have a story that Brad Pitt just honked at him, and said to get the fuck out of the way.”
Pitt is a star in a way that few Hollywood actors are. Not just famous but such a part of the culture that it feels surreal anyone could cross paths with him in the regular world of supermarkets and grocery aisles, or even on the road. He’s a star in the way they used to make them in Hollywood.
“I thought he would be terrific in this character because it needs a terrific actor,” explains Tarantino of the choice for Pitt to play Booth. “But it also needs a movie star, and particularly a movie star like Mr Pitt, a movie star that I think audiences like watching. Like a Steve McQueen or some- one – you like watching him. You like watching the way he moves, you like watching the way he drives. This cool, masculine quality that a movie star can have – he has it. And he’s had it for this whole last generation of actors.”
There was only one copy of the script, so Pitt and DiCaprio would go to Tarantino’s place in LA to read it, and maybe watch some films. Tarantino tells a story of how one day Pitt was due to come over, so he loaded his projector with an old 35mm print of a movie he wanted to discuss with him, a reference he thought Pitt could draw on for Booth.
The film was 1971 classic Billy Jack, which stars Tom Laughlin in the title role, as an ex-Green Beret martial arts expert and all-round good guy. It turned out Pitt had also brought something to watch – the same film. “Neither of us talked about it before, but we both saw the Tom Laughlin connection,” recounts Tarantino. “We kinda blew each other’s minds.”
After that, Tarantino knew Pitt was the man for the job. “I knew I made the right call before that, but that definitely emphasised it,” he says. “Me and Brad are around the same age, so it was actually fun making the movie with him because I bring things up and he remembers them because he was around the same age I was in 1969.”
“It feels like a confluence of all his films,” adds Pitt. “There’s no doubt it is a love letter to storytelling, it’s a love letter to LA, but it’s also a love letter to our childhood – we were weaned on the same television shows, the same movies, the same box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.”
The film marks another interesting mile-stone in that it’s the first time Pitt and DiCaprio have shared a screen. The pair both appeared on ’80s TV series Growing Pains, Pitt as a guest star and DiCaprio as a regular, though never in the same episodes.
“We kind of popped at the same time,” says Pitt. “This is a guy who’s really giving and really goes for it, so you know it’s great fun being able to spar with that calibre of actor. And he’s just great fun.”
The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Besides Robbie (“She’s a sweetheart,” says Pitt, drawing out the sweet for what feels like a full minute), the cast also includes Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Rumer Willis, Austin Butler, and Lena Dunham, who plays one of Manson’s disciples.
“Well Quentin’s going to do that,” says Pitt of the impressive cast. “We’re all going to show up.”
The film was also set to feature Burt Reynolds as George Spahn, owner of the ranch on which the ‘Manson Family’ lived. He made it to set, but he didn’t get to film any scenes before he passed away in September last year.
“I did get to meet Burt Reynolds and that was really moving for me because I grew up with Burt Reynolds’ films,” says Pitt. “We had two days of rehearsal with him and just to sit and talk lm and he was just… you know, they say don’t meet your heroes but he was just so gracious and kind. And still just funny as fuck.”
Hollywood underwent a revolution in 1969, and it’s not hard to see it’s undergoing one now. The aftershocks of the MeToo movement, the anti-Hollywood sentiment in Trump’s election, the rise of streaming services that have shifted people away from cinemas and back into their homes, all while sequels and franchises become more and more dominant at the box office. It feels like a place in which a movie star like Pitt has precious few options for a good old-fashioned original screenplay.
“I’m behind the camera on the producing side and I enjoy that a lot,” says Pitt, of his recent output. “But I keep doing less and less. I really believe that overall it’s a younger man’s game – not that there aren’t substantial parts for older characters – I just feel, the game itself, it’ll move on naturally. There will be a natural selection to it all.
“But I’m curious to see what the future of lm is, what shape it takes. I really appreciate the streaming services because we’re seeing more and more quality projects being made. We’re seeing more writers and directors and actors getting a shot. It just tells you how many talented people are out there.
“I like to think there’s room for both,” he says, taking a while to mull it over. “But I could be a dinosaur and not even know it, man. And the comet could be on the way.”
It’s hard not to look at those shots of Brad and Leo and Quentin on the red carpet at Cannes and get the sense this lm is something big, something iconic. Because it sounds like a cliché to say it, but it’s easy to find yourself thinking they don’t make movies like this anymore, and they don’t make movie stars like these anymore, and maybe they never will again.